Though we were taught never to judge a book by its cover, we continually do so. We constantly judge other people by our first impressions of them. And we are often so wrong. Emily Naper has what we Irish would think is a terribly posh accent, and our tendency is to dismiss posh people as rich and confident, and often indolent.
Where Emily is concerned, we would be wrong on most counts. On the face of it, she looks rich — she is, after all, the owner of Loughcrew, a magnificent property in Co Meath. However, like all old, crumbling buildings, it devours money and, over the last 25 years, this extraordinarily enterprising, charming and surprisingly shy woman has come up with diverse and novel ways of making it pay for itself.
The highlight of this summer at Loughcrew will be a weekend of Mediterranean music and meals. On Saturday, July 12, Emily will host A Tuscan Soiree, consisting of an Italian feast followed by Italian operatic arias and duets, while, on Sunday, July 13, Dejeuner en Provence will comprise a French lunch with French operatic music. “We’d love people to dress up, look sexy and interesting, and enjoy the food. The performers will sing arias from all the great operas,” Emily enthuses.
The musical event is just one of her many wheezes. She started an adventure centre five years ago, and it now boasts a zip line, a climbing wall, an assault course and Zorb football. Other aspects of the business include a coffee shop, which is essential for the hungry hordes who participate in the activities and for the more sedate types who just come for the magnificent restored gardens. “I have a staff of 22, some are part time. I’m one of the biggest employers in the area — I’m very proud of that,” she notes.
Emily’s home can sleep 18 to 20 people, so she rents it out for stag parties, hen dos and murder-mystery weekends. She also does DIY weddings in the courtyard, and her staff appear to adore her.
And she does it virtually on her own. Her husband, Charlie Naper, from whom she was separated, died last October, leaving the estate to her. “He was only 62,” she says. “He got a brain haemorrhage — he went like that. We hadn’t lived together for four years, but we were very happy as friends. I’m very lucky I ran the place. If I hadn’t — ooh-la-la. But I’ve got great children.”
Nico, 29, is studying to be a lawyer in London; Eddie, 27, works in marketing in Edinburgh; and JJ is going to study medicine. “He just got a place, two hours ago, so I’m a proud mum today,” she says with a big smile.
Emily didn’t lick her entrepreneurial skills from the stones — her father, Sir Francis Dashwood, who was a drummer with Humphrey Lyttelton in his early days, ran successful businesses all over the world, including a cattle farm in Australia, a maple syrup farm in Toronto and a business in Denver, Colorado.
“He never stopped. I’ve a long way to go for his energy,” Emily says with a laugh. She’s not far behind — her responsibilities now include managing a castle in Wales, part-ownership of which she recently inherited, and she’s currently dividing her life between the two places.
Yet, when she left school, there was no evidence that she would end up as a successful businesswoman. The young Emily had no career plan, probably because her mother died when she was just 19, leaving her slightly traumatised.
She shared a flat in London for a while with the late Isabella Blow, Philip Treacy’s muse, and with designer, Cath Kidston, then she decided to do a bit of travelling. “I lived in Paris and studied art, then I went to Australia for a year and half. I was a bush girl,” she explains.
On her return to this part of the world, Emily — who is from High Wycombe, a large estate in Buckinghamshire, where period movies are often filmed — popped over to Meath to see her grandmother, Lady Dunsany.
“I met Charlie and his racing car, and that was it. He was very good-looking, dashing, different, and he swept me off my feet,” she says simply.
Charlie, who was a qualified chartered surveyor, and was also, over the years, involved in several businesses, including banking, came with baggage: Loughcrew. “It had been burned down in 1976. It was very sad, very dark and full of sheep, in every building,” she says, adding that they set about restoring it.
“I was the restorer; Charlie was interested in the restoration, but he was working, minding us, feeding us while his crazy wife was running around trying to make things happen,” she recalls. It seems the glam fiftysomething never relaxes — she learned gilding and ran a gilding school in Loughcrew from 1990 to 2009, she had a furniture showroom selling French furniture for a while in 2007, and she ran a summer opera festival from 1999 to 2013, and, all the while, she was restoring the house and the now-stunning gardens.
“The family has been in the area since the 17th Century. This house was built in 1850 and was designed by Charles Cockrell, one of the foremost architects of his time,” she says proudly.
Though Emily makes light of it, she and Charlie had to completely rebuild the house, and they did it in such a way that it appears as if it’s been there for ever. It’s a clever combination of old and new. For example, the wrought-iron Romeo-and-Juliet-style balcony in the palm house is a recent addition — Emily bought the balcony in Capel Street — but the stuffed bear’s head and stag’s head were shot by Charlie’s grandfather. When Emily arrived, the palm house itself, like the rest of the property, was in bits. “The palm house housed a tractor and the roof was on the floor,” she says.
Like many period houses, the reception rooms are huge, while the many bedrooms are compact. However, Emily has been resourceful, and the whole house is creatively decorated. The overall effect is sumptuous. “You have to use your imagination rather than your purse,” she says, pointing out that every bit of fabric for the curtains was bought as a remnant, while she made canopies for bunk beds with bamboo poles and covered them with sarongs, and used broom handles as curtain poles.
In the drawing room, she points out a console table, which she bought at an old-house auction, and which came as 50 pieces of wood in a box before she worked her magic on it.
She made mirrors and picture frames, and covered all the chairs herself. “I love fabric and I like calming colours. I think they help you to slow down,” she says.
In the next breath, she’s talking about future plans. “I’m really keen to build a Buddhist retreat,” she says. “It’s always been a dream of mine. I went to Kerala after Charlie died and it really helped me. I’d like people to walk away feeling inspired by Loughcrew.”
So, no plans to slow down any time soon, then. And no applying stereotypes to Emily Naper.